American novelist, playwright and literary icon, Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer prize-winning play Our Town (1938), one of the most familiar and most frequently produced of all American plays. A serious and innovative dramatist, Wilder often used nonrealistic theatrical techniques to great effect, such as scrambled time sequences, minimalist stage sets, narration and characters that spoke directly to the audience. Wilder was also a great novelist, achieving breakthrough success with his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in 1927. Wilder was awarded the first National Medal for Literature in 1962.
Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897. His father Amos Parker Wilder was a newspaper owner and editor who moved the family to China for a time while serving as U.S. consul general in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Wilder enrolled in Oberlin College in 1915 but finished his undergraduate degree at Yale after his family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1917.
After graduating from college, Wilder went to Rome to study archaeology at the American Academy and then began teaching French at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. By 1926 Wilder had received a master's in French literature from Princeton University. That same year his first novel, The Cabala, was published, and the American Laboratory Theater produced his first full-length play.
His second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, brought him wide acclaim and his first Pulitzer Prize. He soon quit his post at Lawrenceville to concentrate more fully on writing. From 1930 to 1937 he was a part-time lecturer in comparative literature at the University of Chicago and served as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii in 1935.
Although Wilder had written a number of one-act plays, he did not receive critical recognition as a playwright until the production of Our Town in 1938, for which he won a second Pulitzer Prize. Wilder's other plays include The Merchant of Yonkers (1938), which was revised as The Matchmaker in 1954 and adapted into the successful musical Hello Dolly! in 1963. Wilder won a third Pulitzer in 1942 for the play, The Skin of Our Teeth.
Wilder continued to write plays throughout the remainder of his life. His last novel, Theophilus North, appeared in 1973. Wilder died on December 7, 1975, in Hamden Connecticut, where he lived with his sister, secretary, business manager and literary advisor, Isabel Wilder.